Sunday, July 25, 2010
Little written evidence of either true marriage ceremonies or marriages as a concept has been found. Usually there was a grand party associated with the joining of two people, but we believe it was simply a social affair and had no real religious or legal bearing. Traditionally, the term hemet has been translated as "wife", but is probably more accurately "female partner". The legal and social implications of the word are not clear. Interestingly, the word hi is the male counterpart to hemet but seems to have been rarely used. However, this is probably due to funerary text most frequently being related to men, and so the female partner is referred to and defined by her husband. Hebswt is another word that seems to apply to a female partner, but traditionally it has been translated as "concubine". However, this meaning is less clear because in some New Kingdom text both hemet and hebswt are used at the same time to apparently refer to the same female. It has been suggested that the term hebswt might more accurately describe a second or third wife after the first one died or was divorced. Of course, our modern, romantic concept of marriage is a relationship based on love between partners who consent to share their lives together. But up until the 26th dynasty, relatively late in Egyptian history, the bride herself seems to have little choice in the marriage. In fact, during this time frame most marriage contracts are actually between the girl's father and future husband. The girl's father and even her mother had much more say in the matter then the bride. After the 26th dynasty, the bride appears to have had more say in her future husband, and we find phrases in marriage contracts that indicate a more defined relationship. Among common people, polygamy may very well have existed as it obviously did in the royal class, but if so it was rare. We known from excavations such as Deir El Medina that the housing of common people conformed more to monogamy rather then polygamy. Yet from the 13th Dynasty (1795-1650 BC) on polygamy was common among kings and some of the ruling elite. While one principal wife (hemet nesw weret) was chosen, others were probably taken by the king in order to assure a royal heir, or cement relationships with foreign countries or even powerful regional leaders. Kings might have as many as several hundred wives, and in some periods other high officials took more then one wife. Also, the tradition of brother/sister or father/daughter marriages was mostly confined to the royalty of Egypt, at least until the Greek period.